Mark McDermott

Joan and Ron: a love story

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Newlyweds Joan and Ron Arias in Los Angeles in 1966. Photo courtesy the Arias family

Second of two parts

by Mark McDermott

On the fifth to last day of her life, Joan Arias had begun to sink into silence. The doctors described a CT scan as showing cancers “everywhere” but her shortness of breath made chemotherapy inadvisable. She’d decided, at any rate, that enough was enough. She was going home the next day, for hospice care.

“This is no way to live,” Joan said.

Her husband of 51 years, Ron Arias, was camped out in her hospital room. What was most disturbing to him was the feeling of slow retreat he felt from Joan. No matter the circumstance, she’d always possessed the gift of engagement. It was how they had met 52 years earlier when she engaged him in a playful argument at a library at UCLA, ostensibly about an obscure Spanish poem; it was how they traveled the world together, voyages to far flung locales where friends would marvel at her ability to learn dialects, befriend strangers, and find the nooks and crannies of places most tourists never penetrate; it was how in two decades living in Hermosa Beach her impact was such that, a week after her passing, Councilman Hany Fangary was moved to tears as he spoke before council of her civic involvement.

To those who knew her, Joan always seemed the most wide awake person in the room.

Susan Grebe, a fellow volunteer with the League of Women Voters, recalled how Joan routinely baffled everyone with her seemingly limitless cognitive capacities.

“She was not only our secretary, but also our scribe, writing numerous articles for our newsletter and sending in letters to the editor as our action chair,” Grebe recalled. “How she could do a crossword puzzle and take lecture notes at the same time was incredible.”

This gift continued to amaze her husband after a half century of marriage.

“[She was a] good listener, catching everything, references and nuances, and could then summarize with clarity and precision,” he recalled. “That’s why she was such a good secretary for the League of Women Voters. She not only took down the proceedings in prose that needed only an at-home polish, but did all this seemingly left-handed on her laptop while with her right hand she finished off, with a pen, the LA Times and the New York Times crossword puzzles for the day.”

And so as her voice quieted and the spark in her eye dimmed, Ron began to feel an acute absence.

On the the day before Joan left the hospital for her final journey home, Richard Booth, a Shakespearean scholar and close friend of Ron’s across four decades, was in the room, as he had been daily. He was trying to somewhat soften the sorrow of the situation through the balm of companionship.

He and Ron were quietly talking as Joan, so formerly inexhaustible, lay in a sleep that was increasingly becoming a part of her retreat.

Somehow the topic of Shakespeare’s fools had come up. Booth was marvelling at one of Shakespeare’s great narrative tricks: how the fools were invariably the wisest characters in his plays. Joan suddenly piped up, almost startling the two men.

“That’s not unique to Shakespeare,” Joan said, that challenging yet playful edge that Ron knew and loved so well faint but alive in her tired voice. “Boccaccio did that in ‘The Decameron.’”

She wasn’t gone yet. In the final days they’d share together, even as language faded, Joan and Ron pulled off one last love-abetted miracle. They grew even closer.

He wrote an email to friends and family that last day in the hospital to report that Joan had chosen forgo further treatment. She was coming home.

“She’s now taking charge of the end of her life, and she’s adamant,” Ron wrote. “…We’ve had a pretty good nearly 52 years together. We’re not complaining, but we’d sure like to have another 5, 10 or 15 years of good times. But that won’t happen. Strangely, the more she retreats from life, the closer I feel to her. It’s the tenderest, deepest kind of love. It’s all we have in the face of the beast inside her.”

 

Symbiosis

Ron and Joan, circa 1968

It was 1967. Joan and Ron were in their first year of marriage, before the kids, the jobs, the books and travels, before the one great tragedy they would endure in their 51 years together. They were living in the triumph of young love.

She was a graduate student, studying Hispanic Languages and Literatures, and he an undergraduate studying Spanish at UCLA. They’d only known each other a little more than a year.

Their first home together was a cottage, one of six, little, homey dwellings jammed together on a lot called Rose Court on Santa Monica Boulevard.  The little old lady who lived right in front of them had an ongoing conversation with her flower bed. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band lived in another of the cottages. On warm nights, Joan and Ron liked to leave their door open so they could hear the scratch of a washboard and the faint jangle of stringed instruments.

Since the cottages were slated for demolition, Ron began painting Mayan figures on walls and appliances. He started with a “Choc Mool” figure on the bathtub, a reclining figure with a basin in his belly, usually depicted as sculpture, symbolizing a fallen warrior carrying offerings to the gods. The painting was rudimentary. But something about it delighted Joan.

“You would think Joan thought it was a Michelangelo masterpiece, she was so genuinely enthralled with it,” Ron recalled. “So I just started painting other things around our cottage. I had a blast.”

She called him the artist and herself “the appreciator.” He would become a  lauded international journalist and a key figure in the “Chicano” literary movement; his novel “The Road to Tamazunchale” was nominated for the National Book Award in 1975.

Joan’s written output consisted of a doctoral thesis published the same year called “The Unrepentant Narrator.” But her real life’s work would be as varied and unexpected as the by turns brash and tender but always brilliant swath she cut through the world. For more than a decade, she lectured at universities, including Georgetown and La Verne College.  (She also spent three years in the MA program for linguistics at Cal State Fullerton during the latter teaching stint). She then spent two years as an earthquake preparedness manager, at the same time she was obtaining an MBA from Cal State Polytechnic. Then she spent the next 17 years working in a variety of positions for IBM, from humanities specialist to marketing specialist in Latin America. And then, in retirement, she obtained a paralegal certificate from El Camino and had a late career as the most influential volunteer the Los Angeles County Legal Aid Foundation Self-Help Center in Torrance has likely ever known.  

Along the way she was an activist, a world traveler, an avid letter-to-the-editor writer, an opera lover, a theater-goer, a mother, a grandmother, a collector of art and of an impossibly broad array of carefully nurtured friendships. She was not just a voracious but also a voluminous reader. She read every issue of the New Yorker cover to cover, as well as the newspapers of whatever city she was living in. She kept abreast of Latin American literature throughout her life, but also dove deep into everything from Cervantes to Jane Austen to John Le Carre, from the history of Elizabethan England to the Raj of India and the Thai king who inspired the King & I. When she found an author she loved, she would read every book that author had ever written.

“Over 51 years of marriage, I noticed she went through phases, reading all over one or two authors, often very different in styles, but always authors who explored human relationships, either tangled, dramatic ones, or quietly, smartly, subtly observed ones,” Ron said.

“It’s like trying to describe in words a particular kind of universe that a person can contain in one brain. Joan seemed to have infinite capacity.”

Ron was the one who made a living through his art, but it was an art made possible by the love of a woman adept in the finest art, that of living a fully engaged life.

“They knew how to live, how to travel, and how to take advantage of the world,” said Marjorie Rosen, a journalist and longtime friend of the couple. “Which is a wonder. And not something that many people do.”

A combination of academic boredom and mother-in-law meddling landed Ron and Joan in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1969.

Ron was tired of the stuffiness of campus life and had found a job as a reporter for the Caracas Daily Journal. Joan was tired of Ron’s mother, and at any rate always up for an adventure. The fact that they had a baby who was still in diapers, Michael, didn’t give them pause. They didn’t particularly care about money or careers. They were ready to get out and see more of the world.

“We were young and decided on next moves by gut instinct,” Ron said. “We thought pretty much alike on all the basics. We knew this and yet it really wasn’t a frequently conscious thought. We were just comfortable with each other’s choices.”

They found a cool little apartment above a ballet studio and bought an old Renault from one of Ron’s editors. Joan found work teaching English at the U.S. Cultural Center, part of the American embassy. Ron covered business and politics and came to know many of the country’s movers and shakers, while Joan had lived in Caracas as a Fulbright scholar a few years earlier; hence they had a full social life, tooling around Caracas in their little car.

But there were less charming aspects to their adventure. There was political unrest resulting in frequent shootings in Caracas. And things kept breaking down; power outages were a regular occurence, hot water was a rarity, and the Renault  frequently died. Joan wasn’t crazy about her job; it was hardly as challenging as teaching advanced courses at UCLA; she began to chafe at being a housewife and a quasi-teacher. Baby Michael was often sick. Ron found him on the terrace one day happily munching on a cockroach.

Finally one day about nine months into their adventure Ron found Joan in the apartment’s bathroom battling a broken shower head.  She was in tears.

“You’ve got to get us out of here,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore.

They got out. He found a job in Washington D.C. working as a PR flak for the InterAmerican Development Bank paying five times the money; $18,000 circa 1970 seemed like a lot of money to the young couple.  Joan taught Spanish at Georgetown  University and Montgomery County Community College. They lived next door to the National Cathedral, bought a new Volvo, and had a second child, Jonathan.

The PR job bored Ron, but he had three years to pay off the Volvo, a secretary, plenty of idle time, and a third floor office to which he could close the door and daydream. He found himself observing homeless guys going through the dumpster down below. He imagined their lives, and started writing down those imaginings, with no more artistic forethought than the Mayan figure he’d drawn on the bathtub. His first reader, naturally, was Joan.

The two were very different in nature. She could read 10 books in the time it took him read one. She had a quick wit; his humor was often inadvertent, like a pun he didn’t know he’d made until she pointed it out.

“She was that far ahead,” he said. “But she loved me for other things. Maybe that was part of it, that I was sort of naive. But every now and then I’d hit a homerun — a fiction story, or a journalism story I worked my butt off to do, something for People [magazine] abroad. And man, you could see her glow. Or just nod and smile, like, you got it. Or I made her cry.”

“She was my best, first reader. and my best editor. I always showed her stuff, and as much as I polished, she’d always find something. ‘Maybe this sentence could be a little better.’ Or, ‘You don’t need that word.’ Or, ‘That’s wonderful. I loved it!’ Because she was paying attention. In fact, that is it: she paid attention — to life, to people, to things and how they worked. She wasn’t an engineer, but she knew the engineering of people.”

Those first stories would find publication in literary journals. Thus began his career as a writer of fiction.

After three years in D.C., the Arias family decided to move West. What was to be a new start in California would instead require them to endure the most unfathomable loss imaginable.

The swimmer

In 1971, Joan was hired to teach at Cal State University San Bernardino and Ron was hired to join the faculty at San Bernardino College.

Ron taught English and journalism. Joan would be hired by La Verne College the next year, where she would lecture on Spanish literature and run a summer program in Cuernavaca, Mexico for the next 13 years.

In those first years back in California, Joan also taught Spanish literature to young inmates at the Youth Training School in Chino. Her students were 18 to 22. The program was groundbreaking, demonstrating a decline in recidivism among inmates given access to higher education; it would become a national model, and Joan, with her bent for service and empathy for underdogs, was an influential teacher.

Julie Steinbach, who both taught in the program and coordinated the other teachers, said Joan proved very adept at connecting with this student population, most of whom were young men from desperately poor circumstances. She became particularly involved in helping two of her students after they were released from jail.

“She befriended a parolee heroin addict from the youth program, a young Mexican-American guy,” Steinbach said. “They actually took him into their home…The other parolee was a big African-American kid, a football player type. He just blossomed in her class and when he got out, she facilitated his getting a job. And that was part of what she did: she responded to those kind of needs.”

They lived in Colton and their home became the epicenter for an array of characters. Celebrations were frequent.

“Joan was the life of the party,” Ron said. “She was like a mother to them. That was a heady time…activism, El Teatro Campesino. [Theater company founder] Luis Valdez, Eddie Olmos [Edward James Olmos, later a renowned actor], they used to stay with us. They were just starting out; this was before ‘Zoot Suit.’ We were kind of the godmother and godfather to a lot of these Brown Berets.”

As a child, Michael Arias was a bit puzzled by all the guests, and not always pleased.

“As a kid growing up you just want to be like all the other kids,” he recalled. “With my mom, there were always people in my house, people I didn’t know… Just another one of my mom’s proteges. Who is it? A student? A guy from the supermarket? I didn’t know. Growing up, it seemed random a lot of the times. Now it makes sense. All these people gathered, all these people who really loved her — there was this huge tapestry of connections, of threads, that centered on her.”

“She just connected people along the way, like beads on a necklace,” said Karen de la Pena, who first met Joan during this time. She noted that Joan had a special gift for friendship. “She was always doing these very particular things. She would show up at your house and always have a little gift for you that was special — like a bag of perfect little tomatoes from the farmer’s market, or some little treat she’d picked up on some trip. She never showed up empty-handed.”

In March, 1975, the family moved to Claremont. On the day of the move, Ron and Michael took the U-haul while Joan and Jonathan took the car in order to stop by a Goodwill store. She was holding Jonathan’s hand as they were walking down a sidewalk in San Bernadino when a car driven by a 16 year-old girl turned a nearby corner too fast, then slammed into a parked car, which jumped the curb and hit Jonathan. He died of his injuries within an hour. He was six.

“That was the toughest thing that had ever happened to me,” Ron said. “And I remember just howling, ‘Why, why, why…’, this primeval eruption…I couldn’t help it. I just sounded like a howling wolf. And a friend told me that human nature is really that — the rest is all a dream, it’s all civilized, it’s all shaped.”

For a long time after, it took effort to get out of bed in the morning. Ron doubts they would have made it if not for Michael. They had to somehow find a way to go forward for the sake of their remaining son.

Ron tried to subsume his grief by not talking about it. Joan took action.

“Joan had a way of looking for solutions, immediately,” Ron said. “We were wounded people….She recognized this, her practical side, and she got help. She went to a grief shrink, a guy who specializes in grief and started reading books.”  

She tried to get Ron to address the problem as well, but for a long time he refused to seek help. He suffered anxiety attacks and heart palpitations. Years passed, and his health deteriorated. Joan persisted, and finally he attended a single session with a grief therapist. The doctor held up a ball in front of Ron’s face and told him to pretend it was Jonathan. “What would you say to him?” he asked.

Ron stared silently for a long while. Then, as he opened his mouth to speak, he began to cry. It was the first outward expression of emotion he’d allowed since the day Jonathan died.

“It was okay to be vulnerable,” he remembers realizing. “It was okay to cry. And that did it. And Joan pushed me. She knew I would come around to it, in my time, or I would die.”

“Love, romance, we had all that, yes. But she was practical, and she sought solutions for human problems.”

Close family friend Caroline McAllister said that rather than creating a gulf between Ron and Joan, enduring the tragedy drew them closer together.

“I think it deepens you,” she said. “Even if you are not a scarred human being, you understand some things other people don’t understand.”

Joan also found another way to deal with her own unquiet mind in the wake of Jonathan’s passing. She’d always been so actively living a life of the mind that she had few outlets physically, but she discovered an unexpected peacefulness when she started swimming at a local YMCA. Alone in the water, caught in the rhythm of her strokes, she found a place of sweet stillness, beyond loss.

And so for the rest of her life, she swam. She kept moving forward.

La Vida es Hermosa

In 1984, after Michael graduated from high school, Ron and Joan moved back East. The previous year she’d started working for IBM, while Ron was hired to write for People magazine.

It was a sweet period in their life together. They had a home along the water’s edge in Stamford, Connecticut, just 40 miles from New York City, where they both worked. Joan could swim, and Ron kayak in the mornings, before work.

“Again, they organized life in such a way as to get the most out of it,” Marjorie Rosen said. “Imagine being able to swim every morning, hurry up and put on some clothes and make the train into Manhattan. It’s like a scene from a movie of some sort.”

Ron became People magazine’s “D & D” reporter, specializing in going to the places of the world rife with war or suffering the aftermath of a natural disaster. His own experience with loss informed his work.

“I used it in a positive way,” Ron said. “I would uncork people just by saying, ‘I know how you feel. I lost a son, too.’ Whatever it was — a hurricane, flood, shipwreck, plane crash — whatever disaster they’d send me on, I’d often get to victims, and it was all about loss and grief. And I’d been there. I could really focus, and empathize. That helped me become a better journalist. That wasn’t my plan. Joan, she pushed me. She showed me the way.”

Joan was also traveling extensively for IBM. She’d become a “glue” person for the company, working in various capacities but always having an outsized influence in whatever department she worked in.

Megan Page, a colleague at IBM, said Joan became both her confidant and mentor.

“Joan was 21 years older than me,” she said. “When I was coming up, working in that environment, I was a young thing and didn’t really know a lot about the world. She provided me a lot of guidance, just mentoring me how to deal with situations I’d never dealt with, how to handle myself professionally and personally. She was so savvy…just common sense you sometimes forget. She had that in abundance, and was so clever, so able to step back, assess the situation, and just nail it….She dealt with everything with grace.”

Page came to understand that she was one of many whom Joan had taken under her wing. “Joan collected people,” Page said. “She met people and sorted out the ones she wanted to keep. The lucky ones.”

In the mid-1990s, Ron and Joan frequently visited his brother, Armand, who lived in Manhattan Beach and later El Segundo. They always stayed at the Sea Sprite Hotel in Hermosa Beach. One night, as they watched a golden-red sunset on a pier bench, they decided this was where they’d retire. They found a beautiful 1924 cottage on 8th Street that had been expanded, by architect Patrick Killen, into a creatively rambling 4,500 sq. ft. home. It was a funky, eclectic home, which Joan filled with folk art from their travels; among other places, they’d spent time in Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, Puerto Rico, England, Vietnam, Bermuda, Peru, Thailand, China, Belgium, Cuba, many times to Mexico.

Sometimes their work travel would intersect and they’d rendezvous in Hong Kong, or Rio, or Buenos Aires. Once, they were both returning from separate journeys abroad and met at Dulles airport in D.C., where they planned to fly back to California together. After they reunited for that flight, near near an airport gate, a young couple approached them.

“Excuse me, but we have an odd question for you,” the young man said. “Are you married?”

“Yes, we are,” Ron said. “For 30 years. Why do you ask?”

“Because it looks like you are still in love.”

Ron retired in 2007, Joan in 2008. She obtained her paralegal certificate and by 2009 was volunteering with the Self-help Legal Access Center at the Torrance Courthouse.

Kim Aston-Young, a paralegal who has been with the center for 32 years, had never before encountered a volunteer like Joan. Their clients were often people in the most fraught circumstances — too poor to afford a lawyer, but in need of help to get out of a violent relationship, or to navigate a stressful lawsuit. From the beginning, Aston-Young was astounded when she saw Joan helping one client speaking Spanish, then another in Portuguese, another yet in Japanese.

But beyond language skills, what Joan brought to the table, Aston-Young said, was a calming competence.

Joan Arias. 

“She gave them confidence everything would be okay,” Aston-Young said. “Yes, she understood they were going through a lot, but she also gave care to each and every person. She stepped in and helped…and they found somebody who would really listen.”

But, for Aston-Young, their bond went beyond work.

“I’m from Compton, California, from an African-American family,” she said. “For her and me to get together and bond like we have is amazing. For her to be in my life, it’s a blessing in itself…That’s my girl. That’s my best friend.”

Ron had gone through several serious health scares in the last decade and a half. He suffered a heart attack while on assignment in Hawaii, and later went through a bout with cancer. Joan tended to him.

“Joan was such an advocate for Ron,” said Caroline McAllister. “When you came to eat at Joan’s, you didn’t eat fried foods. You ate what was good for Ron. I loved that.”

He’d always assumed he’d be the first to go. But earlier this year, her health quickly began to deteriorate, first with severe back pain that kept her bedridden. Later, cancer was discovered.

Those last months, Ron found himself nursing Joan. Though he’d always tended to her in an almost courtly way — she never had to pump her own gas, for example — this still represented a role reversal. He cooked and cleaned and played her favorite music and stayed close by her at all times.

“I felt, in a way, daily closer to her than I’d ever felt,” he said. “And we were old and wrinkled, both of us. We didn’t look anything like when we were young, fresh, and full of energy. No. It didn’t matter. It was tenderer. And it doesn’t get any better. And I’m glad I had that experience, because you know when you are young and energetic, you don’t appreciate it, you just sort of skate through it. And that goes for everything — sex, food, walks, you are enjoying everything — company, a lot of nice foods, travel, all of that is great. But I had such an intense experience every day, and we might not have said two words the whole day.”

“I turned into her servant, but her lover, too. But it wasn’t a physical thing. I felt privileged to bring her a box of Kleenex.”

After returning home from the hospital in mid-August, Joan faded quickly. She was rarely conscious. But no darkness could separate her and Ron.

“It was beyond words,” he said. “Literally she couldn’t speak towards the end. It was a little quiver, a smile, a tiny edge of a smile. And I’d play her favorite opera song, you know, it was an eye twitch.”

“Thought was still there and even a twinkle in an eye or an amused raised eyebrow, but then that faded too, until there was only her last breath as I held her hand.”

She died on the morning of August 18. Amid the sorrow, the couple’s family and friends found much to celebrate.

“Just in terms of relationships, they made it look easy, and it also gave me something to aspire to,” said Michael Arias. “Particularly after my brother died, 45 years ago — they just really got so tight. Really, speaking not always with one voice, but moving in the same direction. They carried this very strong, ‘We are going to get through this together attitude.’ And it carried them through a lot of tough situations.”

Joan and Ron lived the triumph of long love. Nothing could diminish that, not even death.

“I don’t think they knew how to be anything but good to people,” said Rosen. “And to be good to each other.”

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